David Gonski

The right style of leadership for a particular time changes, according to respected businessman David Gonski, but one constant remains; courageous leadership entails looking past the naysayers and thinking long-term for the greater good.

Speaking during an intimate fireside with Conexus Financial CEO and Professional Planner publisher Colin Tate as part of a ‘Redefining Leadership’ series, Gonski said the leaders of the world need to think “longer”.

“What I would aspire to as courageous leadership… is to take a long-term view when everyone is shouting for a short term situation,” he said.

Gonski, who sits on around 40 boards, is the chair of ANZ and served as an adviser to the late Kerry Packer, admits that it’s not always easier to put the longer-term goals ahead of short-term satiation. “Have I done it?” he said. “The answer is yes, I have, but probably not enough.”


As Tate’s long-time mentor, the well-connected businessman was comfortable enough during the session to open up about some of his own mentors and one, in particular, that shaped his own style of leadership.

“I was on the board of Westfield for many, many years and I listened and watch Frank Lowy,” Gonski recalled. “Here was a man who started with nothing but seemed to know that we were at point A and needed to get to point B.”

As well as being a hard worker, and perceptive, Gonski explained how property magnate and Westfield scion Lowy was always a step ahead.

“He showed strength but it was a benevolent strength,” Gonski said. “It never came across as hubris.”

As to the current environment, Gonski reminded Tate and the listening audience that while the pandemic is unprecedented in modern times, events that give way to serious financial downturns come and go. This is the time for leaders to make their mark, he believes.

“I’ve lived through four, maybe five financial downturns, depending on how you define them,” he said. “I’ve learnt that this is where you can add value, this is where you value great management.”

He acknowledged, however, that being a leader in 2020 is incredibly challenging. Being fortunate enough to have a house and everything he needs, the businessman says it would be “ridiculous” for him to complain. But while his immediate needs have been met, the burden of leadership can take its toll.

“I have laid awake at night because there are decisions that I’ve had to make in relation to the various organisations that I’m involved with… which were absolute anathema to me,” he said. “I don’t even know if I was trained to make them.”

He gave the example of sitting down with the University of New South Wales’ vice chancellor make the call to shut down the institution’s library. “To me this was a very big thing,” he said.